Strategic Plan – Keystone or Cornerstone?

Strategic Plan – Keystone or Cornerstone?

While we use "keystone" and "cornerstone" interchangeably in our speech, in building, they both have very distinct meanings.

A keystone is the last piece of stone placed when constructing an arch and it locks the other stones into place in an otherwise fragile arch shape. A cornerstone is often the first stone laid when constructing a building and forms the reference of alignment for all other stones to be laid.

So, is your strategic plan the start of your organisational development - the cornerstone of your organisation, or is it the final piece that seals your strategies - its keystone?

In most cases, it is a combination of both, but the value is in the way you process the writing of your strategic plan, in analysing where you want to go and where you are starting from (cornerstone approach) and the strategies you need to undertake to bridge the gap between the two (keystone approach).

But first, let's clear up the difference between a strategic plan and a business plan.

A strategic plan is a big picture story of where you want your organisation to go.

A business plan cascades from that and tells the story of what you need to do within a much shorter timeframe to help you get to the big picture.

A strategic plan is a long term direction-setting document. It typically covers a period of 5 to 10 years and the timeframe is not prescriptively detailed in its actions: it is based on less precise assumptions due to the less predictable long-term it is setting out and therefore it does not contain detailed step by step actions.

A strategic plan should define your vision, mission and values so that you set the description of what your organisation will be like when you “arrive” at "success". Then through a series of analytical processes looking at where you are now, a number of strategies are generated to “bridge the gap” between where you are and where you want to go.

These strategies will tend to be broad, directional strokes like “we will increase the community services provided to old people” or “geographically we will expand our investments into other towns in the region” without identifying the services or the exact investments.

A business plan is a far more detailed document. It takes the strategies arising from your strategic plan and carves them into more predictable timeframes – typically one to 2 years. Since the timeframe is shorter, the assumptions can be more accurate and the options more predictable.

The business plan will consist of a series of goals and objectives achievable within the shorter timeframe, but helping to move your organisation towards the longer-term strategic goals, and following the strategies from the strategic plan.

In order to combine the keystone and cornerstone approaches to your strategic planning process, follow the process below.

  1. Make a list of all the information you will need to think through and analyse. Don’t start deliberations until you have it all. This list of information will be different for different organisations but they will include things like
    1. formal and informal mandates including constitutions and public expectations of your organisation;
    2. a critical history of the organisation;
    3. financial reports over the last 3 or 4 years;
    4. legal structures and commitments or agreements;
    5. staff histories;
    6. programmes, projects or business unit analysis;
    7. deep discussions with stakeholders about the organisation’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
    8. Ask yourself, what information do you need to make an informed decision?
  2. Schedule sufficient time to conduct the strategic planning exercise. This is not a one, two or even three-day workshop. This is “sufficient time” and may mean an extended period of meetings, analysis, reports, and more meetings over several weeks and months. The key is to have a guided process in place.
  3. The process should include the analysis of the vision and the quantification of success – “when we have achieved the vision, what will we actually look like and how will we behave?” Actively analyse this and agree so that you know where you want to be. Good analysis and description of your vision will provide clues as to what you have to do to "get there".
  4. The process should analyse the current situation – what are you expected to do? Will this change? What are you doing right? What are you doing wrong? What opportunities and threats exist that you will have to change to meet? The definition of what success means to you, if detailed enough, and this analysis of the current situation should lead you to a set of Key Strategic Issues that embody what you have to resolve in order to go from the current situation to the successful vision.
  5. Then, and only then should you look at top-level strategies to deal with these Key Strategic Issues. Don’t fall into the trap of one strategy per each goal or Key Strategic Issue. Life is rarely that uncomplicated. Often on implementing one strategy, you either only partially deal with an issue, or you deal with several at once. You need to think through the strategies and the repercussions of each before you understand if they will get you to the end-game.
  6. Finally, after work has been done, you have time for blue-sky thinking. With complete information, analysis and discussion you can construct those Big Hairy Audacious Goals. Without the foundations, any of these goals are mere wishes.

Of course, laying your cornerstone (the stone that lays out the direction and alignment of the rest of the building) is the first step, and to hold everything into place, you need to lay the final keystone.

In strategic planning, the keystone is how you implement that plan - by following it and referring to it in every action, not by leaving it on a dusty shelf.

Part of the reason they are left on a shelf is that they meant nothing when prepared, especially if prepared merely to suit a grant-funding obligation. The organisation's Vision was not invested in it, there was no real interpretation of what it meant to achieve that Vision.

Another part of why strategic plans are not followed is that there is no built-in monitoring and review process. Without a meaningful monitoring and review process, even normal scheduled tasks take on the feeling of a "must-do" rather than something you are glad to get to do because it means something.

No wonder deadlines pass and soon deadlines don't matter anymore.

Monitoring and reviewing are not onerous.

First, you need time to take the strategic plan and expand it into shorter-term tactics (your business plans), so don't make the mistake of reinventing the wheel every year in preparing your business plan for that year, refer to your strategic plan as the starting point!

You need to ensure that each person and team tasked with implementing the tactical actions understand why they are doing it and what part of the grand Vision (strategic plan) they are helping to achieve. The measurements then become something to be proud of rather than merely a tick against a task.

Finally, your Strategic Planning should "start from the right place, and end up where you want to be". A fitting quote to mean that there is a process to follow, and all you need to do is to follow it.

If you are preparing to start your own strategic planning process, what process will you follow?

Perhaps you should look at our templates for preparing your strategic plan. Our templates take you from the correct place to start and guide you all the way to arrive at the final deliverable - your actionable strategic plan. You can learn more here.

If you would like to know more about writing your strategic plan or business plan, how to start it as your cornerstone, or how to place it as the locking piece keystone and implement it so it works, give us a call for a no-obligation discussion on 08 9242 2085 or email


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